FLUSHING, N.Y. — All Elite Wrestling is having a hell of a September, with the emphasis on hell. The company has navigated away from the chaotic fallout to its Labor Day weekend show, one that saw multiple high-profile wrestlers brawl backstage and catch suspensions for it as well as possible, all while putting on some of its better weekly television in the process. It was all building to Wednesday night’s Grand Slam, its marquee yearly episode of Dynamite, now in its second year at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens.
Though the show had some strange pacing and booking decisions, the moment most likely to reverberate through the company in the coming months was perfectly executed. Following a purposeless if competent women’s title match, the villainous stable of Britt Baker, Jamie Hayter, and Rebel were beating down the babyfaces Toni Storm and Athena, as wrestling villains are wont to do. It was all set up for someone to either return or debut to save the heroes, and that’s exactly what happened, as Saraya made her AEW debut to thunderous cheers:
Formerly known as Paige in WWE, the 30-year-old Brit was one of the forebears of that company’s “Women’s Revolution,” a brand-massaged but still crucial era in which women’s matches began to move away from the sexualized presentation of the late ’90s and 2000s and into actual storylines and matches given time to breathe. Before the Four Horsewomen of WWE (Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch, and Bayley) truly took off, there was Paige, having great matches in NXT, usually with Emma, and turning that women’s division into the place to be. AEW has to be hoping that, nine years later, Saraya can have the same effect on its own division.
To be clear, the women’s division in AEW is miles ahead of where WWE was at the time of Paige’s first ascension, but that only makes it more of a disappointment. There is so much potential for the bookers to work with, and yet the company has repeatedly failed to build much momentum beyond the golden period of Britt Baker’s title chase and initial defenses in 2020 and 2021.
The women’s division has been the weakest part of AEW programming since its inception, something that this site has noted multiple times. The problems are easy to identify: the women do not get enough time; the division is both bloated and focused almost singularly on its own homegrown and bankable star (Baker); and storyline for the title got obliterated by an injury layoff for its former champion, Thunder Rosa.
At least in theory, AEW now has a star in Saraya to build around, a name wrestler who has both a history and the talent to be a marquee player, and a salve for AEW’s self-inflicted wounds. Saraya’s debut marks a new era for the company, much in the way CM Punk’s debut did in the summer of 2021. (A comparison that should highlight that nothing here is a sure thing.)
It’s never simple for AEW’s women division, however. There is a giant elephant in the room when it comes to Saraya: her neck. The reason she is not still a huge part of WWE’s plans is that she had to step away from wrestling due to a neck injury that required surgery in 2016. She attempted a comeback the following year, but after a kick to the back from Sasha Banks at a house show in 2017, she reported that she lost feeling in her legs. She never wrestled for WWE again, officially announcing her in-ring retirement in 2018.
It appears that both Saraya and AEW think she’s ready for another comeback. That’s a potentially scary thought, given how serious her neck injury was, but stranger things have happened in wrestling in recent years. Edge came back to WWE after nine years away due to a neck injury of his own, one that looked to be as career-ending as an injury can be. Bryan Danielson called it quits after a series of post-concussion seizures, and now he’s a huge part of AEW’s roster. Saraya’s actions on Wednesday—taunting the heelish stable of Baker, Jamie Hayter, and Rebel—and the fact that she’s been added to the AEW roster page as a wrestler, with a blank slate of wins and losses, makes it look like the company has cleared her for action.
Let’s just assume and hope that Saraya is truly OK to go in the ring. If that’s the case, then this is AEW’s moment to untangle the mess it has created with its women’s division. Though there have been ex-WWE wrestlers who have joined the division since the start of AEW—Ruby Soho, Athena, and Toni Storm—none have ever reached the heights that the former Paige did. She’s not the world’s best mic worker, but she has a charisma that has always engaged crowds, something that was evident in her debut: Without saying a word on the mic, she had the entire stadium wilding out.
Where Saraya goes from here will define women’s wrestling in AEW for the near future. Pitting her against Baker and her cronies as a first feud is a great decision, but the execution needs to be similarly inspired. Saraya is a can’t-miss talent, or as much as one can be when coming back to wrestling after five years away and with a surgically rebuilt neck. Baker is one of the few women in the division who has been given the time and energy to get over, and fans appropriately hate her guts. Treated right, the pair could kickstart the division.
Consider me skeptical. There’s nothing that the company has done over its first three years to make me believe that it can or will handle this correctly. But this is a golden chance, maybe the best chance AEW will ever have, to take its women’s division issues seriously. It would be among the biggest disappointments in the company’s history if, six months from now, Saraya is just another woman on the roster, struggling to get the time she needs to build something better than she found. But it would not be a surprise.